Amsterdam is famous worldwide for its liberal attitudes. Amongst its residents, it is more known for its shortage of housing. In the past decades, this problem has been solved by squatting. Nearly everyone I met in Amsterdam lives, or had once lived, in a squat. But with the social and political climate of the city changing, the attitude to squatting is also changing; to the disgust of some people, there is now an Anti-Squat Movement. I have always seen squatting as having outsider connotations—the bucking of an unfair system, a political statement, cockroaches and blocked toilets, dodging the police. But in Amsterdam it’s different. People live in squats for years, they are homes, their occupants legally registered with the government and paying the local version of council tax.
Any building left unoccupied for a year in Amsterdam is fair game for squatting. All you have to do is break in, take in a chair, a table and a bed, then call the police who come and register you at the address. A check is done to make sure the building has in fact been empty for a year, and it’s yours to live in. Now, the onus is on the owner to get you out.
Many of the buildings squatted are owned by the government: railway houses no longer used for signalmen houses acquired for road widening which has never happened. These are often the best to squat because the government is slow to move and, if the plans for new roads, railways etc. have been shelved, they have no use for the buildings.
The squat I spent time in was an old railway house next to a freight line. It was crooked and damp, so close to the tracks it initially felt like the trains were going to come through the wall, and, along with my friends, it housed mosquitoes the size of birds. Mind you, a lot of Amsterdam is plagued by bird mosquitoes. I only ever found citronella in the shops and it was humiliating to hear these insect-beasts laughing as they buzzed me all night. In the end, I had my sister send powerful mosquito coils from Australia which showed them! It might sound a bit of an overreaction but when you’ve spent a few nights thinking you’re about the be carried away by the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, you’ll be desperately calling for Australian chemicals too.
But I digress…
The railway squat was a real home. Book lined, music-filled, the smell of delicious meals cooking, cups of tea in the sunshine. After a while, I even slept through the noise of the freight trains. It has been squatted for over twenty-five years and has everything—gas, electricity, water. The only thing it doesn’t have is rent. Perfect.
A girl I met at a party lived in a similarly ideal situation. She was part of a bigger, well-known squat in an old mansion just outside Amsterdam. This was a house acquired by the government for road widening that never happened. As she described it, every corner of that place is used productively. There are artists, chickens, children. The garden has vegetables. The residents are very content—except for the usual sharehouse fights over jam and bread.
But I kept hearing about the changes creeping into Amsterdam. How it is becoming less tolerant. How it is becoming more crowded, more money-oriented. And I heard about the Anti-Squat Movement.
This is a kind of tenancy group that works with building owners whose buildings are empty while they apply to redevelop. To protect them from squatters, the anti-squat group installs tenants, usually students, at low rent, with few rights and not great conditions—these buildings are about to be redeveloped remember. Then again, I had friends renting a place without a bathroom and that had nothing to do with squatting, just finding an affordable roof in Amsterdam these days.
Squatting in Amsterdam is an organized community. While some people do it just to have a home, others do it to be part of an alternate, low-cost community. I went to a now-legalized former squat in Westerpark, which has a vegetarian restaurant and band venue (Zaal 100). We ate a good three-course meal, then watched some, frankly, experimental music from Germany.
There are squatted gallery spaces, bars, internet cafes. Although a lot of the newer ones of these are short-lived as owners react more quickly to squatters moving in. For up to date information go to UnderWaterAmsterdam.
But my favorite was the squat sauna. Near the Vondelpark, this well-established squat has a sauna and steam room open to the public very cheaply. They also offer one euro showers for backpackers and the homeless. Again, there is very good, cheap vegetarian food on offer, massages, and a garden to cool down in. In true Dutch form, it is all nude and mixed gender—leave your inhibitions in the locker room as you strip off next to assorted strangers. But it is one of the most relaxing places I have ever been. The dozing mats upstairs became a haven during my two months in Amsterdam, although, sadly, the sauna was closed for a month of summer. And this summer, it just wasn’t warm enough to justify that—I needed a sauna to warm up!
By Philippa Burne
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